Christmas Past


My best Christmas memories are from Georgia. I have a vivid memory of driving into the forest with my father and then, on foot, finding a nicely shaped cedar tree. We always went to the woods on the Little River.

We would cut it down with our ax, put it in the trunk of the car and then go home, where we would build a tree stand from scrap lumber in the "kindling pile." The old house we rented was heated entirely by fireplaces and one coal-burning stove in the dining room. You needed wood to start the fire and to ignite the anthracite. We bought the coal by the ton, and it was stored underneath the house, which was built on raised brick pillars.

I don’t have many memories of Christmas presents. My parents were working folk from the Great Depression era, and even when they had some money, they were cautious about spending. I do remember a much-wanted bicycle and a secondhand .22-caliber Remington Model 12 rifle when I was 7 or 8 years old. I still have it. But at the same time, all my memories of that time are happy ones, and I never felt deprived of anything. Loving parents and good food are about all a boy needs.

Good food was plentiful. We had a large garden and chickens. Fresh milk was delivered to the doorstep, and most of the produce we ate was grown on local farms. My mother, like most of the Southern women of her generation, was a superb cook and kept us full of biscuits, cakes and pies as well as the staples.

Everything she cooked was from scratch, including, in the case of the chicken, catching one, whacking its head off, plucking the feathers and gutting the bird. Most people today don’t realize that when you cut a chicken’s head off, the body will flap around the yard spraying blood in all directions. That’s where the old phrase "running around like a chicken with its head cut off" originates.

The old house, which had originally been a farmhouse, was graced with many fruit trees. There were peach trees, pear trees, plum trees, pecan trees and even a pomegranate tree. In addition, there were large arbors of muscadines and scuppernongs, and, in a nearby field, blackberries and raspberries.

That period of my life, even at the time, seemed like paradise. I loved the town and felt a part of it. Even as an elementary-school-age kid, I could roam the streets, the country roads and the woods and swamps and never once feel an ounce of anxiety. The rest of the world was tearing itself apart in World War II, but as far as we kids were concerned, we were living in a peaceful bit of heaven.

Christmas, of course, was not as commercialized as it is today. There were no community decorations, and none on individual homes. There was no community choir or concert or special service. We sang Christmas carols at school, but that was about it.

When my father was transferred to Texas when I was about 11 years old, I thought my world had come to an end. I bitterly protested leaving Georgia, but I had no choice and left the world I had been born into behind. I would discover later, as Thomas Wolfe so eloquently put it, that "you can’t go home again." Places and people change, and we ourselves change, so what once was can never be again.

This little town and those few precious years remain frozen in my memory, like an oasis I can visit and remember the happiness of a time when all the pain and difficulties of life still lay invisible over the horizon.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.